New world order starting in SE Asia

New world order starting in SE Asia

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, shakes hands with Indonesia's President Joko Widodo as he passes on the Asean chairmanship at the closing of the 40th and 41st Asean Nations Summits in Phnom Penh on Nov 13. (Photo: AFP)
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, shakes hands with Indonesia's President Joko Widodo as he passes on the Asean chairmanship at the closing of the 40th and 41st Asean Nations Summits in Phnom Penh on Nov 13. (Photo: AFP)

Right here, right now, the new international order is in the making. Because of the war in Ukraine, the divided world and its leaders had to rendezvous in Southeast Asia for nearly a week recently. Those with the stamina to last the duration have benefited the most from bilateral discussions, aired their new ideas and grievances, cemented new and old friendships and built one-on-one rapport and relations. Many valuable lessons can be drawn from the three summits to which Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand played host.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the danger of modern warfare among nations in that it can drag other nations into the fray, in this case, friends and allies. During World War II and the Cold War, friends and allies were clearly identified. In a similar vein, common enemies were equally as clear. However, as the biggest war in Europe since 1945 erupted in February has shown, today, the impacts of war have far-reaching repercussions in all corners of the world, regardless of friends or foes. This is partly due to the increasingly interconnected world, which has been developed and strengthened in the past three decades. Even though the idea of de-globalisation and decoupling is gaining some traction in some quarters, both in the East and West, it is still impossible to sever multi-levels of connectivity.

The war in Ukraine has destroyed production chains across all dimensions, causing commodity prices to soar and benefiting conglomerates and business enterprises, leaving the poor and vulnerable groups grappling with whatever they have. Furthermore, the United States under President Joe Biden has a strong commitment to promoting democratic and liberal values, thinking that this political system will bring happiness, transparency, respect for human rights and freedom to the peoples of the world. A world divided by democracy and autocracy is a bad idea. Not all democratic countries are totally free, and, at the same time, not all autocratic countries are completely totalitarian. In Asia, these days, economists prefer to use "global production chains" than "global value chains" to avoid unnecessary confusion.

Somehow, most of the countries in the world are somewhere in the middle. Part of them are democratic, and certain parts autocratic. It is all in the eyes of the beholder -- the half-filled or half-emptied dichotomy. In other words, it is a hybrid model. Whatever their political systems, they all want a peaceful world. For all the summits, the most important lesson learnt was the art of listening, then balancing everyone's interests and sometimes having to make necessary compromises. In Southeast Asia, politicians talked to their rivals and made deals so their countries can avoid further conflict and war.

Interestingly, the three hosts have different levels of democratic consolidation and development, but they sought the same outcome. In the top tier is Indonesia, which has enjoyed full democracy since transforming from the one-man rule of former President Suharto in 1988. Since then, the world's third-largest democracy has struggled and survived against all odds. Today, it is a vibrant democracy. In Bali, last month, Indonesia's 24-year-old democracy pulled off one of the biggest coups -- getting all the protagonists in the Ukraine war to agree on the G20 leaders' declaration.

Then, there is Thailand, a country which has been plagued by domestic troubles throughout the decades. The West often characterises the Land of Smiles as the land of messiness and human rights violations, especially cases related to lese majeste. Demonstrations, which have been a daily event since 2010, continue unabated for all kinds of reasons, economic, political, social, and partisan. Lest we forget, within the region, Thailand is unique as it is the region's only non-colonised country. It lacks the common experiences, for better or for worse, that other neighbouring countries in the mainland and archipelago have. When Thais talk about freedom, they refer to freedom from outside domination and intervention.

Oftentimes, Thailand goes its own way because of its strong risk-averse traditions and proud diplomatic practice. Prior to Apec 2022, expectations were low that Thailand could match the strong stances taken by the G20 over the war in Ukraine and the food and energy crises or other threats to people's livelihoods. But as it miraculously turned out, Thailand performed beyond expectations as all members were cooperative and did not want to see Apec 2022 crumble. Mr Biden, who did not come, missed opportunities that other leaders enjoyed. By the way, the Biden administration does not consider Thailand a country of Washington's standards, despite, truth be told, some of the strongest allies and friends of the West being non-democratic too.

In the case of Cambodia, despite the negative views of Prime Minister Hun Sen, he has carried the current Asean chair extremely well. Today, Asean centrality is stronger than ever. His personal touch and rapport with the leaders, who know him and do not reject him, have helped ease the tension. His invitation to Ukraine to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation was a great move. His maverick stand, albeit different from his two other Indochinese neighbours, has won him applause, especially from President Biden.

More than the West would like to admit, a new international order has already emerged, building on the programmes and activities of the Asean-led mechanism. In the past, these were not given the respect or recognition they deserved due to the lack of such crises as the Ukraine war. Suddenly, Asean has reappeared on the global strategic map as the fulcrum for all countries, regardless of their military might and size. Regional meetings are no longer about Southeast Asia any more. Both President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Prime Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent such strong signals.

Both leaders benefited tremendously from attending Apec as guests of Thailand. Mr Macron brought a fresh new version of Europe and future engagement with Asia-Pacific to Bangkok. His demeanour during his trip won the admiration of the host and its people. For Saudi Arabia, the world no longer exists inside the vortex of the Middle East and US-directed geopolitics. The prince has discovered that Thailand, as well as other Asia-Pacific members, are a good place to make friends, invest, and enjoy shared prosperity. He has single-handedly changed the political landscape and engagement between his country and Southeast Asia.

In closing, one caveat is in order. Due to the rise of China and its proximity, Southeast Asia will now become a safety valve of sorts to ensure that competition among the great powers, in particular the US and China, does not rear its ugly head, particularly in the region. Chinese President Xi Jinping had the opportunity to display his diplomatic finesse and personal touch during his three days in Bangkok. Throughout the summits, all great powers behaved respectfully. Political pundits and analysts have different takeaways but one message is constant and clear: Southeast Asia is now the centre of the emerging new international order in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The question is whether Southeast Asia, under the roof of Asean, will be able to ramp up and strengthen some of the bloc's shortcomings to respond to the future challenges in the post-pandemic era.

That is why under the incoming Indonesian chair, the bloc must better manage internal conflicts, especially in Myanmar, in such a way that reaffirms its place at the table with the world's great powers.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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